Essay–The Try and Fail of Subtext

With each book I write, I try something new. Hell, sometimes the entire process of writing the book is a new journey. The Black was the first time I attempted to write an ensemble novel and it’s worked out pretty damned well. Its sales have shocked me as have the fantastic rbneviews.

But there’s something bothering me. In several of the reviews, including author Ed Lorn’s fantastically kind words, it’s been mentioned that readers had a difficult time keeping track of the character names. For instance, Thomas Calhoun is referred to by both his first and last names. Multiply that by ten times and you can understand the confusion.

Before I sent the final version to the publisher, I thought I’d cleared most of that up. Evidently I didn’t. That’s on me and no one else. I’ll do better next time to make sure that kind of thing doesn’t happen.

So why did it happen at all? What the hell would possess me to do such a thing? Simple–literary sensibilities. Wait, that sounds too hoity-toity. Oh, well. Fuck it. I stand by it.

Here’s what I was thinking. If you pay close attention to The Black, there are two different cliques on the rig. There’s the engineering team and the roughnecks. The engineering team, when referring to one another, use only their first names. The roughnecks, however, refer to them by their last names.

The idea was to add to the tension between the two groups and show the distance they had from one another. It was a great idea. However, I failed in making it work. And for those of you that read The Black and were somewhat confused by this? I apologize. Again, my fault.

Why would I try such a thing? Why bother? Too many fucking literature classes in college. Over the years, some have complained that the Garaaga’s Children series has much the same problem with the ancient terms it uses. Why is that a problem? Well, I don’t go into detail about them.

Xiphos, for instance, is a short sword much like the Romans carried during their reign. In my story Interlopers, Alexander The Great’s scouts carry these weapons. A xiphos isn’t exactly anything special. But it’s how the scouts would have referred to their swords. They wouldn’t just call them “swords.” That’d be like calling a shotgun a firearm. It’s less specific and too general.

The subtext is pretty easy to pick up. You pull the xiphos from a hilt and and you start swinging. Therefore, it’s a type of sword. But the narrator isn’t going to go to length to describe them. Why? Because he’s in the head of one of the scouts. Nerutal isn’t going to spend half a page of the story talking about what a “xiphos” is. He already knows what it is and spending time on a goddamned infodump just isn’t worth it. At least not to me as a reader or writer.

One of my readers once jabbed me by saying I expect my readers to do a little research. I guess that’s sort of true. When writing historical fiction, you can toss these terms around and give them as much subtext as possible, or you can spend pages describing the history of those terms, their etymology and what they signify.

I can write tomes on the color of dress through the ages. How red and purple were for the wealthy and powerful while the other hues were for the servants and the poor. I can discuss the different metals for jewelry and decoration and what they meant at the time. I can do all that. But does it really add anything to the story?

And that’s the problem. To me, massive infodumps serve no purpose to move the story along. They have nothing to do with what’s going on. But I drop those details in the story so that if you’re paying attention, you pick up on what those colors mean and signify. Isn’t that a better way to handle it? I think so. I still do. Shit, maybe this is why those stories aren’t popular.

So with The Black, I tried to make a point through subtext. And as I said, it obviously failed. Lesson learned. Mea culpa for the next book. I’ll do my best to make sure it never happens again. But if we writers don’t take chances, don’t try anything new, then our readers just end up with the same old shit. As a reader, that would bore the hell out of me.

I don’t treat my readers like ignorant fools who have to be told every little thing. I feel patronized when a writer does that. It’s insulting. I’m smart enough to figure this stuff out. If it’s important to the story, then it begs for more care. If not, then throw it out there and move the fuck on.

There. I said it. Those are the kinds of books I want to write because they’re the kind I like to read. Everything I do won’t work for you. And for that, I apologize. Let me know what works or doesn’t. It helps me grow as a writer and I don’t mind the critique; I welcome it.

Now that this little mea culpa is done, it’s time to focus on the story at hand. I hope you enjoy it as much as y’all seemed to have enjoyed The Black. I promise it will have more darkness, more speed, and leave you quaking in your shoes.

6 comments on “Essay–The Try and Fail of Subtext
  1. Subtext seems not to go over very well with genre readers, but I don’t see that as any reason to intentionally avoid it. Perhaps find a way to point out to observant readers, “Hey, there’s subtext here, it isn’t simply trying to be confusing!”

    When I used a similar technique in my zombie novel (where depending on contexts & relationships the characters were referred to by variations on their names) I didn’t get any complaints about it—but there weren’t very many characters, and I tried to make careful use of non-dialogue tagging to be clear. There are a couple of pages where all the contexts smash up into one another where a character will have multiple versions of their name in the same page (in one case in the same paragraph), to try to point out, “Hey! Subtext here! This has been going on the whole book! Maybe pay attention to what people call each other and think about why!” without actually getting explicit about it.

    But if you’ll still be happy with your stories sans subtext, absolutely; remove it.

  2. Michelle says:

    How characters refer to other characters can reveal a lot about relations between characters. It’s when the character themselves changes what they call themselves that I got tripped up. In the same paragraph Thomas refers to himself as both Thomas and Calhoun.
    Don’t give up on subtext. I found the level of detail as far as oil rig operations and the biology spot on. Enough to figure out what was going on without an info dump or being snowed.
    Can’t wait for the sequel!

  3. Dave says:

    I’ve gotten the occasional criticism regarding the protagonist of my main series. Everyone calls him by his last name (Maddock), but when we’re inside his POV, he’s referred to by his first name because that’s how he thinks of himself.

  4. Nathaniel Rich says:

    I love Glen Cook’s Black Company series, where very little is given to character backgrounds and names are kept short: Croaker, One Eye, The Limper. To me, that was refreshing in a (dark) fantasy series, especially since I’m still bitter about how bad Wheel of Time was with characters: millions of them that don’t matter with very similar names.

    Interesting play with The Black’s names. I find myself referring to people I disrespect by their last names as well.

  5. Kevin Adams says:

    Just finished reading “The Black” and i have to say i was pleasantly surprised. I’ve been on a horror reading jag for the past few months and i’ve found a few dogs in the novels that Amazon suggests for me.

    I really enjoyed “The Black”. It reads like a great 2 to 5 part tv mini series.

    As for the subtext…I noticed the use of different names but wasnt confused by it. However, outside of Vraebel, Gomez, how much do we really see Vraebel’s crew? I felt like they were just filler…or fodder :). Either way i enjoyed the book immensely. I was up til about 1am this morning reading it. And just wasted about half an hour here at work (not really wasted) finishing it off. I was also happy to see that there is a “The Black 2” in the works. Looking forward to it!

    Thanks,
    K

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